Cover image for Otto III By Gerd Althoff and Translated by Phyllis G. Jestice

Otto III

Gerd Althoff, and Translated by Phyllis G. Jestice


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ISBN: 978-0-271-02401-1

232 pages
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Otto III

Gerd Althoff, and Translated by Phyllis G. Jestice

“Althoff's careful attention to the sources (quoted extensively in the translation with full Latin citations) and his insights regarding the ritualistic and demonstrative behavior of the early Middle Ages mark this as a book that demands the attention of scholars and students alike and one that should have an English translation.”


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Otto III (980–1002) was one of the most powerful rulers in Europe in the late tenth century. He is also one of the most enigmatic. The son of the German emperor Otto II and the Greek princess Theophanu, he came to the throne at the age of three and was only twenty-one years old at the time of his death. Nonetheless, his reign had a lasting impact on both Germany and Italy for generations. In this book, Gerd Althoff provides a much-needed biography of this fascinating figure. In the process, he uses Otto’s life to explain how in practice early medieval kingship worked.
“Althoff's careful attention to the sources (quoted extensively in the translation with full Latin citations) and his insights regarding the ritualistic and demonstrative behavior of the early Middle Ages mark this as a book that demands the attention of scholars and students alike and one that should have an English translation.”
“Previous historians have seen Otto III as a misguided or even tragic political innovator. But for Gerd Althoff, Otto was a savvy ruler well attuned to the political ‘theater’ of his day. Otto III is an excellent introduction to Althoff’s vision of the Middle Ages, where power is exercised and communicated through ritual; where political players follow intricate and well-known—though unwritten—'rules of the game'; and where modern notions of ‘policies’ and ‘ideologies’ have no place. This book rightly challenges us to suspend our modern statist assumptions as we consider the nature of medieval rulership.”
“During his short life contemporaries held widely differing opinions about Emperor Otto III. Modern German scholarship has been just as divided, branding him a genius bent on restoring the glory of the ancient Roman Empire whose death at twenty-two prevented him from achieving his goals or an ineffectual dreamer whose love of Rome set Germany on the path of political disaster. Refusing to ascribe to Otto any consistent ideological or political program or to dismiss him as an unrealistic failure, Gerd Althoff has produced a controversial study of the Emperor that emphasizes the limitations and parameters of medieval kingship, focusing on the rules of play by which Otto and his contemporaries lived and acted. Thanks to Phyllis Jestice's translation, English readers are introduced not only to Otto and his age but also to the ongoing debated in German historiography concerning this most fascinating and enigmatic ruler.”
“The complexity of Otto’s reign and earlier historians’ wildly divergent interpretations of it, along with many of Althoff’s interests in early medieval rulership, all nicely coincide in this study so that the book effectively conveys the style and research interests of a major scholar while offering a careful, richly documented, and perceptive study of Otto III and his reign.”
“This is a mould-breaking biography and an exemplary work of modern scholarship that showcases a very important recent approach to the period as a whole.”

Gerd Althoff is Professor of History at the University of Münster. He has written numerous works on tenth-century Germany, including, most recently, the book Die Ottonen (2000), which examines kingship more generally in the Ottonian dynasty. This is his first book to be translated into English.

Phyllis G. Jestice is Assistant Professor of Medieval History at the University of Southern Mississippi and the author of Wayward Monks and the Religious Revolution of the Eleventh Century (1997).


Translator’s Note

Preface to the German Edition

Preface to the English Edition


The Modern Assessment of Otto III

Royal Rule and the Idea of the State at the End of the Tenth Century

Central Questions and the Problem of Sources

1. A Child on the Throne

Henry the Quarrelsome and the Disturbances over the Succession

The Regency of the Empresses

2. The Beginning of Independent Rule

The First Independent Decisions

The First Italian Expedition

The Encounters with Gerbert and Adalbert

3. The "Revenge Expedition" to Rome and the Beginning of the "Roman Renewal"

The Fight Against Crescentius and the Antipope

Otto III’s "Idea of Roman Renewal" in Older and Newer Scholarship

4. The Journey to Gniezno

Preconceptions and Preparations

The Journey

From Gniezno to Aachen

5. The Last Expedition to Rome

"Government Business" on the Way

The Gandersheim Conflict

The "Ingratitude" of the Romans

The Death of Otto III

6. Building Blocks for an Assessment of Otto III: Observations, Insights, Open Questions

Demonstrative Ritual Behaviors

"Friends" of Otto III and His Interaction with Them

Dealing with the Heritage





‡ Chapter 1 ‡

a child on the throne:

Henry the Quarrelsome and the Disturbances over the Succession

Otto's reign certainly began inauspiciously. When the three–year–old was consecrated king at Aachen on Christmas Day, 983, Emperor Otto II, his father, had already been dead for three weeks. But nobody in Aachen knew that yet. The news of the senior Otto's death arrived shortly after the coronation ceremonies and “brought the festivity to an end.”

The situation was now critical in many respects. One issue was fundamental —the kingship of minors placed the medieval ruling bond under an almost intolerable strain. Contemporaries knew they should fear fulfillment of the Bible's lament “Woe to the land whose king is a child and whose princes feast in the morning.”

But the actual situation for Otto III involved an even more disturbing circumstance: the last years of his father's reign had been unfortunate also. In July 982 the German army had suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Saracens at Crotone in southern Italy. More great nobles, both secular and spiritual, had fallen on the battlefield at Crotone than at any time since the Magyar invasions at the beginning of the century. In fact, the emperor himself only escaped to a ship under conditions filled with adventure.

One year later the Slavs east of the Elbe staged an uprising. They destroyed the bishoprics of Brandenburg and Havelberg, and thus at a single blow wrecked the hitherto successful Ottonian missionary policy.

The true importance of these reversals for the makers of political decisions is very difficult to assess. Only Thietmar of Merseburg discusses the matter, reporting that “all our princes came sorrowfully together after receiving the evil tidings [from Italy] and unanimously demanded to see him [Otto II] again.”

This report by a later chronicler suggests that the magnates wanted to influence policies after Crotone. But we cannot say what these nobles hoped to accomplish. All we know is that they met with the emperor at a great assembly in Verona. Certainly scholars have assumed that Emperor Otto II hurried to Mainz to prepare for this assembly and while there discussed the possible consequences of the predicament in which he found himself. Available evidence cannot support this assumption, however.

According to the sources, the assembly of Verona set about appointing new dukes for Bavaria and Swabia, but its main business was to elect Otto III as coruler with his father. The proceedings were unusual: this was the only royal election ever held south of the Alps. The sources give no reason for this departure from custom. Conceivably, time was running short for arranging matters in south Italy. Possibly, too, the choice of venue aimed to enhance the importance of a part of the Ottonian empire that Otto I had won only after 951: Italy. Whatever the reason for the election, immediately thereafter the new threeyear– old king, who until that time had lived in Italy with his parents, departed for the north. His goal was Aachen, the Ottonians' traditional coronation site, where he would receive royal consecration. The report that not only Archbishop Willigis of Mainz but Archbishop Johannes of Ravenna performed the ceremony is striking in this context.

This report, too, suggests a concerted effort to include representatives from the Italian part of the empire in ceremonial acts, and in that way a tendency to integrate the various regions under imperial control. These, however, remained only isolated occurrences. The death of Otto II created a precarious situation. In Italy there were rebellions against Ottonian officials. Matters soon became even more complicated in the empire north of the Alps. There, Duke Henry the Quarrelsome of Bavaria, a first cousin of Otto II, again emerged as a political force. His relationship to the imperial house was already greatly strained.

As a member of the Bavarian branch of the Ottonians, Henry had been involved in several armed rebellions against Emperor Otto II in the years after 974. At first he had been pardoned. After a second rebellion, though, Henry lost his duchy and was imprisoned in the custody of Bishop Folcmar of Utrecht. This imprisonment, which had already lasted an unusually long time by tenthcentury standards, ended abruptly with the death of the emperor who had ordered it. In the same way that treaties of this time were only valid inter vivos and lapsed with the death of the treaty signatories, so too had Henry the Quarrelsome been not a “state prisoner” but the personal prisoner of the emperor. Naturally, he received his freedom again when Otto II died.9 There is hardly a better example of how underdeveloped “transpersonal state representations” still were in this period.

In point of fact, Henry was not simply released. He immediately claimed a role in political events. He did so by demanding that Otto III, at that time staying in Cologne in the care of Archbishop Warin, be handed over to him. Apparently this was in accord with the law of propinquity as it was understood at that time.

Apparently there was no opposition to this move, because Henry could claim his rights as Otto's nearest male relative. Moreover, the dominae imperiales, the young king's grandmother, mother, and aunt, were still in Italy and by all appearances were in no hurry to return.

According to the sources, almost everyone believed that Henry was only seeking the guardianship of the young king. Henry's behavior and actions, however, soon taught them otherwise.

As a matter of fact, Henry took action in a very characteristic way. Henry immediately made an agreement with King Lothar of France through emissaries and hurriedly arranged a meeting in Breisach, to conclude a friendship alliance with Lothar there. To assure Carolingian support, Henry supposedly even planned to turn the disputed province of Lotharingia over to the French king.

A letter authored by Gerbert in the name of Adalbero of Rheims to Bishop Notger of Liège is essential for assessing Henry's actions. In this letter Gerbert warns Notger against King Lothar, who was on his way to Breisach, and against Henry the Quarrelsome, whom he designates as an enemy of the state. The letter can be dated to the end of January 984 and thus shows that by this time the Quarrelsome's activities had already gone beyond mere guardianship and were considered dangerous.

However, we also learn through several reports and references among Gerbert's collected letters that the West Frankish king Lothar announced his own right to assume Otto's guardianship. Indeed, Lothar could also call upon the law of propinquity, because he was related to Otto III in the same degree as was Henry the Quarrelsome.

This claim perhaps even explains why Henry made a surprising change in direction. Henry did not turn up at the agreedupon meeting in Breisach, despite his oath to do so. King Lothar consequently used the conflict over the German throne as a pretext to attack Lotharingia. This was part of a long tradition of West Frankish/French efforts to recover the region. Because of resistance by the Lotharingian nobles, this effort had no lasting success.

Henry the Quarrelsome apparently made no arrangements at all to keep this meeting with the French king. The Saxon chronicler Thietmar gives a full and detailed report that Henry traveled directly from Cologne, where he had taken possession of the young Otto, to Saxony by way of Corvey.

It is not possible to say what motives lay behind this apparently abrupt change of mind. One thing is clear, however: in Saxony Henry the Quarrelsome did not hide his true aims under the mask of guardianship for long. Instead, his actions there quite openly aimed at usurping the throne. It is impossible to say whether he intended to set himself in Otto III's place or to establish some sort of joint rule.

Before he had even reached Saxony, however, something occurred that significantly worsened Henry's prospects. In Corvey, two Saxon counts, Dietrich and Siegbert, came to him barefooted and begged his pardon. In other words, they underwent a ritual of submission, for which there was a well–established tradition.

Henry, however, refused them his forgiveness, after which these counts “sought with all their strength to entice their relatives and friends from the duke's service.”

We know neither the reason for the discord between Henry and the counts nor Henry's reason for refusing to forgive them. Still, we can assert from numerous similar incidents: clemency is always near to the scepter.

Kings of the tenth century never missed an opportunity to provide clear visible proof of their clementia, public events at which opponents prostrated themselves before the ruler and begged for forgiveness. On the contrary. Public submission was a ritual commonly used in conflict resolution. As a rule, all the particulars were settled beforehand, and the ceremony thus had the character of a staged production, through which public conflict was concluded.

Henry the Quarrelsome had not heeded these rules of the game. Possibly he did not want to accept a fait accompli by the counts without reaching a previous agreement; perhaps he felt too deep a bitterness to forgive them. In either case, though, Henry the Quarrelsome's refusal injured him in Saxony as the dismayed counts' understandable reaction shows. From then on they worked against Henry in every way possible. Not surprisingly, a little later they are also numbered among those opponents of Henry who began to form themselves into a party in support of Otto III.

As in the case of the Breisach meeting, Henry's conduct is incomprehensible. A politically experienced man must have known the consequences of refusing a deditio, of not accepting a proffered submission. In this way he had demonstrated his unwillingness or incapacity for practicing clementia, one of the most important kingly virtues. Unfortunately, we almost never have evidence to explain what motivated Henry's behavior. In Saxony, Henry's position was at first so strong that he could seek out the most important places in the region and use ecclesiastical festivals to present himself as would–be king: he celebrated Palm Sunday in Magdeburg and Easter a child on the throne in Quedlinburg, following royal custom. Already in Magdeburg he began negotiations with the attendant princes, with the goal of convincing them to recognize his kingship. The majority of the magnates, however, countered this demand with the pretense that they needed first to obtain the consent of their current king—the young Otto.

The form this permission might have taken is unclear. Would it have been through the child himself or his guardian? Apparently the nobles involved were playing for time and working against Henry the Quarrelsome's plans, as Henry himself immediately recognized. His public indignatio, his displeasure at the way some Saxons were hanging back, motivated these nobles to withdraw from Magdeburg and to discuss in secret meetings possible measures against Henry. Up to this point, Henry the Quarrelsome's supporters still dominated the public scene. At the Easter festivities in Quedlinburg they publicly greeted Henry as king and honored him through ecclesiastical laudes, the formal songs of praise addressed to a ruler. Many of those present at Quedlinburg paid him homage, and “swore their support to him as king and lord.”

In this regard Thietmar particularly singles out Dukes Mieszko of Poland and Boleslav of Bohemia, as well as the Abodrite prince Mistui. Mistui's presence at Quedlinburg is especially surprising because only the year before he had attacked and destroyed Hamburg during the Slav rebellion.

That a long list of bishops was ready to support Henry's candidacy also demonstrates the dominance of Henry's supporters at this time. Among them was Archbishop Giselher of Magdeburg, whose activities during this Easter week are unknown.

We are better informed about the reaction of Henry the Quarrelsome's opponents. After leaving Quedlinburg they met at Asselburg, and agreed to resist Henry's attempt to seize the kingship by forming a compact, a coniuratio. It is important to note that this form of compact by oath was a common way in which the Saxon nobility dealt with political issues from the tenth century on.

The nobles involved met in urbes or civitates, that is in fortified places, and effected their political agreement with an oath obliging those swearing to act toward a common goal. This coniuratio thus offered a particularly effective political coalition against enemies—including the Ottonian or Salian kings. Thietmar names the most prominent participants in the Asselburg meeting: Duke Bernhard of Saxony, Margrave Dietrich from the northern march, Ekkehard (the later margrave of Meissen), Counts Bio and Esiko of Merseburg, Bernward (the later bishop of Hildesheim, whom Thietmar designated at Asselburg as ”count and cleric”), along with a whole series of further Saxon counts. The milites of Saint Martin (the vassals of the archdiocese of Mainz) were also present. Aside from these men, no representatives of spiritual institutions are named.

Henry the Quarrelsome immediately recognized the danger of this sworn association. As soon as he learned of the coniuratio, he moved with a strong military force from Quedlinburg to Werla, either to disperse his opponents or to reach a peaceful agreement with them. The conduct Thietmar reports is typical of the age: brewing conflicts evoked a characteristic mix of threatening military gesture and offers to negotiate. It was typical to confront an opponent with strong military force and to threaten him with armed might; at the same time, however, a leader would send a negotiator to attempt a peaceful settlement of the conflict. Bishop Folcmar of Utrecht undertook this task for Henry. However, he could not convince Henry's enemies to submit; he only won their agreement to meet in the future for a peace conference at Seesen.

As had happened when he negotiated with the West Frankish king, Henry the Quarrelsome did not consider himself bound by such arrangements made on his behalf; he immediately set out for Bavaria instead. There all the bishops and some of the counts accepted him very quickly. Then he continued his journey toward Franconia. His behavior is probably best interpreted as a conscious policy not to resist opposition by individuals and groups of enemies, but rather to win as many supporters as possible as quickly as possible. His aim was to force his opponents into a position of weakness.

His Saxon opponents used Henry's failure to appear to their own advantage: they attacked and destroyed Alaburg, in the process freeing Otto III's sister Adelheid, who was living there. Then they returned joyfully to their homes with the princess and a large amount of booty.

After Henry's failures in Saxony and successes in Bavaria, much now depended on the decision of the Franconian magnates. Prominent among the Franconian princes who entered into negotiations with Henry at Bürstadt near Worms, Thietmar names Archbishop Willigis of Mainz and the Swabian duke Conrad, a Franconian, as preeminent representatives of these Franconians. The outcome of the talks was unambiguous enough to spell bad news for Henry: the Franconian magnates were not prepared under any circumstances to discount Otto III's claim to the throne. This decision now gave Henry the Quarrelsome a larger view of power divisions within the realm. He had the choice either to pursue his claims to the kingship with military force or to give them up. According to Thietmar, Henry shrank from armed strife. While he was still in Bürstadt, Henry supposedly promised to restore the royal child to his mother at an assembly in a child on the throne Thuringian Rohr on 29 June, and in that way demonstrate that he renounced his claims to the succession.

Significantly, a typical strategy of the time, negotiations conducted through mediators, might have delayed indefinitely impending military escalation. Henry the Quarrelsome apparently made a realistic appraisal of his position and prospects, and thus seems always to have regarded a peaceful end to the conflict as a realistic possibility. Not surprisingly, therefore, this peaceful compromise was not entirely to his disadvantage. He certainly did not attain his ultimate goal, the succession to the throne. Still, further negotiations and agreements sufficed to assure his restoration as duke of Bavaria. After the Bürstadt assembly and his agreements with the Franconians, Henry traveled to Thuringia by way of Bohemia. There he transacted similar agreements with his Saxon opponents. These agreements allowed him to remain unmolested in Saxony until the Rohr assembly. From there Henry journeyed on to Merseburg (where his wife, Gisela, had been living up until then), conferred with his vassals, and prepared himself for the negotiations in Rohr.

The dominae imperiales also came to Rohr: Otto III's mother, Theophanu, his grandmother Adelheid, and his aunt, Abbess Mathilda of Quedlinburg. All three had been in Italy when Otto II died, and by all appearances had waited there for the outcome of events north of the Alps. But that also means that early on they had either avoided active support of Otto III or seen no opportunity for intervening in the disturbances. When they returned to the north, nearly half a year after Otto II's death, King Conrad of Burgundy accompanied them. Conrad, Henry the Quarrelsome's father–in–law and Empress Adelheid's brother, was certainly the obvious mediator in the difficult negotiations that awaited them. It is characteristic of medieval narrative sources that we know next to nothing about the specifics of the presumed negotiations, about offers of compromise and about the circle of people who played a part. It is also crucial to remember this when analyzing medieval sources. The sources inevitably focus their attention in a completely different direction. When the great nobles of the entire empire came together at Rohr, “to the astonishment of all who were present and saw it, a star of brilliant light shown down upon the partisan struggle from the midst of heaven, in unheard–of fashion in the middle of the day, as if it wanted to grant God's help to the captive king—a wonderful sign, memorable to posterity. Having seen this, the unjust party quickly reacted with horror, and the aforementioned Henry, deprived by law of his usurped title and kingdom, was compelled to turn over the king to his grandmother, mother, and aunt. Granted mercy at the intervention of his father–in–law, King Conrad, and the princes, he returned sorrowfully to his own homeland.”

It is evident in this description from the Quedlinburg Annals that one of the author's main interests was typological. The author is eager to connect this journey of the dominae imperiales and King Conrad to Otto III to the journey of the Three Kings. A striking meteorological event during the meeting at Rohr perhaps motivated this comparison. By contrast, Thietmar's report offers more details about the political problems involved in this amicable settlement. According to him, the child was merely turned over to his mother and grandmother, and peace was concluded, with the rest of the arrangements prorogued to a future assembly at Bürstadt. But at Bürstadt, too, there was no final agreement. A great dispute arose instead between Henry the Quarrelsome and Henry the Younger, made duke of Bavaria when the Quarrelsome lost his office.

Clearly there was still no consensus on Henry the Quarrelsome's future position. Apparently Henry the Quarrelsome had agreed to renounce his kingly ambitions in return for restoration to his earlier office and honors. But no source so much as mentions this condition. The best way to detect it with reasonable certainty is from the reaction of the current duke. Henry the Younger stood to lose his duchy if such a settlement was reached. Still, opposition availed Henry the Younger, duke of Bavaria, nothing. Forced to yield to preserve the peace treaty as a whole, he was compensated with the duchy of Carinthia, which the duke of Bavaria could claim again only after Henry the Younger's death.

Even though we know nothing about the specific negotiations or the mediators who carried out the confidential negotiations, we are well informed about the results of their activity. This is because the peace agreement and its terms were “published” in several ritual and ceremonial acts. It is possible to understand these scenes as a typical means of public communication in the Middle Ages. The essential points of the peace agreement, arranged confidentially, were promulgated in a public presentation. This assumed an unequivocally staged character. Every step and act was arranged in advance—the players display the new situation through specific behaviors and in that way obligate themselves to act in accordance with their own public conduct.

The Quedlinburg Annals give this account of the proceedings, the first part of which took place in Frankfurt: When the royal child Otto III came to Frankfurt, he [Henry] also came and humbled himself according to custom, to evade the punishment due for his unjust elevation. Humble in demeanor and action, hands clasped, he did not blush to swear his faith under the eyes of the assembled people and in the presence of the imperial ladies who cared for the kingdom, the child's grandmother, mother, and aunt. To them he yielded the royal child whom he had taken captive when he was orphaned and whose kingdom he had torn away by force. In true faith he promised furthermore to serve him, asking nothing but his life and begging only for mercy. But the ladies, as we said, through whose care the kingdom and the king's youth were guided, received him [Henry] with renewed honor, greatly rejoicing at the humble demeanor of such a high man—for that is the custom of the pious, not only not to requite good with evil, but indeed to render good in return for evil. When he was pardoned and raised again to the ducal dignity, they were not only among his friends but also among his closest friends in dutiful love, as the law of kinship urged.

The significance of this scene only becomes clear to the modern reader when it is compared to other descriptions of ritual and symbolic acts. It is notable that in the sources most acts of homage by vassals to lords involved the imposition of hands, the vassal swearing faith with his hands placed within the hands of his lord.

But it is evident that the Quedlinburg account describes other elements having nothing to do with homage. The “humble in demeanor and action” and above all the plea for life and mercy belong in this category. But these elements form a central part of the act of submission, the ritual of deditio, as it was performed at this time.

The essential gesture of deditio, the prostration, however, is missing from the ritual at Frankfurt. The way Henry the Quarrelsome's public act of recognizing Otto III was staged at Frankfurt thus suggests a combination, specially tailored for this case, of the act of homage with that of submission. Those who had arranged it had, in effect, made the act of submission milder, by sparing Henry the Quarrelsome the prostration. They did, however, expand the act of homage in turn by demanding a public display of the significant tokens of humility and the plea for life and mercy. This publicly displayed Henry's need to beg for forgiveness from the child–king whom he “had taken captive when he was orphaned and whose kingdom he had torn away by force.”

Henry's public acknowledgement of the new political reality was not limited to this single act. Otto III, by now six years old, celebrated the next Easter at Quedlinburg with a large number of magnates in attendance. Among them were Dukes Boleslav of Bohemia and Mieszko of Poland, who there formally acknowledged Otto III and who were sent home again with rich gifts. In a single sentence, however, Thietmar recounts an event that was a second and even more public demonstration of this new state of affairs: “The king celebrated the next Easter in Quedlinburg, where four dukes served him: Henry [the Quarrelsome] as steward, Conrad [of Swabia] as chamberlain, Henry [the Younger of Carinthia] as cupbearer, Bernard [of Saxony] as marshal.”

It is probably no coincidence that the time was Easter and the place chosen for this demonstration was Quedlinburg. It was there in 984 that Henry the Quarrelsome had celebrated Easter as king; now he served the young king. Conflicts over the throne came to an end with this festivity. The ruling class had as a whole accepted a new regime under Otto III. Otto's mother, Theophanu, would be regent, with the special assistance of Archbishop Willigis of Mainz and Hildebold of Worms, the head of the court chapel, but also with the dukes.

In conclusion, this crisis of authority during the dispute over the throne is a particularly good case study in both the specifics and the essential characteristics of medieval politics. First it teaches the legal consciousness in a socalled “personal–alliance state.” The imprisoned enemy of a ruler, at the moment of the ruler's death, again becomes a full member of the ruling elite. As a member of the royal family he announces—again in accordance with prevailing legal concepts—his claim to the succession. Interestingly, more secular nobles than members of the episcopate had problems accepting him. Apparently those who found it most difficult to accept Henry were those who had already paid homage to the royal child. Not least, Henry's political maneuvering to assume the kingship for himself did not transgress the legal sensibilities of the time. This also shows the mechanisms for compromise, through which Henry the Quarrelsome was able at the very least to regain the position he had held before his imprisonment. This conflict also demonstrates many general techniques of medieval conflict resolution and reconciliation. People in situations like this did not simply strike out uncontrollably at each other, but employed a completely rational blend of threats and attempts at negotiation. This mixture of methods put a brake on every military escalation in the dispute over the throne, and both sides acted on the conviction that the process of negotiation was the more promising. This conviction also motivated Henry the Quarrelsome when he was compelled to renounce his ambitions for the crown. It throws a remarkable light on this man's political reasonableness, something the nicka name scholars have given him has perhaps permanently discredited.

A third and most notable point evident in the course of this crisis over the throne is the peculiar character of public conduct in the Middle Ages. Scholars have largely ignored this issue. Rituals, demonstrative acts and symbolic deeds, were all theatrical devices to publicize claims, objectives, or new circumstances. That such devices multiply significantly in times of conflict justifies us in seeing them as a basic means of medieval communication. Since the negotiation and reasoning behind decisions remained private, the parties involved used gesture and ritual to publish these decisions. From this single short period, examples include the (clever) public submission of the Saxon counts to Henry the Quarrelsome, Henry's imposition of hands in Frankfurt, and his service at the table of the royal child in Quedlinburg. All of these acts required intense confidential negotiations before they were effected. To judge from their mature techniques of amicable conflict resolution, the ruling elite of the tenth century were by all appearances in a good position to carry out such negotiations.

The Regency of the Empresses Recently, scholars have more thoroughly examined the political and personal profile of the Ottonian ruling women. This resulted in part from celebration of the thousandth anniversary of Empress Theophanu's death, which encouraged scholarship.

But the truth of the matter is that the regency of Empresses Theophanu and Adelheid for the underage Otto III has always been of special interest. Contemporaries viewed positively the actions both empresses took for the young king, and modern scholars still accept that assessment. Despite “the weakness of her sex,” Thietmar of Merseburg writes of Theophanu, “she guarded her son's rule with masculine watchfulness in steady friendship toward the law–abiding, in terrifying superiority toward the rebellious.”

Without doubt this judgment is an unassailable fact. The long period of regency, from 985 to 994, in fact remained largely free of conflicts and crises. Its very peacefulness speaks positively for the quality of the regents. Still, and significantly, Thietmar was not impartial. His sympathies were conditioned to a large extent by whether somebody had been involved with the dissolution of his own bishopric of Merseburg or its refoundation. Theophanu was involved in the latter. The positive tenor of contemporary reports, however, has resulted in a tendency to assume grand political motivations behind the actions of the regents. As a consequence, Theophanu's eastern, Italian, and western policies are accorded a creativity scarcely seen even in the adult males who ruled in their own names during the tenth and eleventh centuries. The source of Theophanu's presumed talent for sophisticated political thought is usually attributed to her Byzantine background and the knowledge she had acquired there of international policies.

Many factors argue against that conclusion. Above all, it is suspicious when the governmental policies of medieval rulers are attributed to ideas more in accord with the way modern people understand politics than their own time.

Moreover, this scholarly tradition is burdened with a fundamental problem: it assumes an articulated ideology behind events. It is most rare to see behind a political event to the ideas of the participants, what these ideas in fact were, and even whether those ideas shaped the outcome of the event. The danger of misunderstanding is particularly great when there are few facts upon which to base an analysis. This is especially the case for the period of the regency. Before seeking to understand underlying motivations, therefore, it is necessary to begin with an account of what really happened in this period, the decade between 984 and 994. Only then can one appropriately ask what clues the sources provide for any reasonably articulated policy on the part of the regents. To explore the practical administrative policy of the regency it is important to keep in mind that all evidence for the issuing of charters, typical activity for Otto III's chancery, dates only from October 984.

It is possible to discuss conscious administrative policy only from that time on. The court chaplains from the chapel of Otto II were kept on, and the chancellor Bishop Hildebold of Worms and the arch–chaplain Willigis of Mainz oversaw their activities. Both bishops appear so frequently in charters alongside the regent Theophanu in the years following 984 that their influence on the regency is not in doubt.

Royal charters from the regency record activities that allow instructive insight into structures of power and ways to exert influence at court. They also reveal that most magnates were intensely involved in the governance of the empire.

Clearly, the empresses' regency depended more on consensus by the great nobles than was customary for kingship in the Middle Ages. It is very difficult to separate influence and power within this circle of advisors, since the sources give only rare evidence concerning the specifics of decision making or indeed of dissenting positions. All available evidence is necessary to determine, as far as is realistic, how the regency functioned. Part of this is an examination of underlying assumptions. For example, the vita of Bernward recounts in detail the rules of the game for operating in the circle around the young king. This is central to its account of the events involved in the so–called Gandersheim controversy.

In 987 Otto III's sister Sophia, according to the account, refused consecration as a nun by Bishop Osdag of Hildesheim, who had proper authority over the convent of Gandersheim. She approached Willigis, the archbishop of Mainz, who promised to bestow the nun's veil on her “without considering how much he thus injured ancient canon law.” According to the Hildesheim account, Willigis's presumptuous behavior exceeded all bounds: he did not, as was usual, request permission to enter the diocese of Hildesheim, but commanded his Hildesheim “brother” and “fellow bishop” to come to Gandersheim for the investiture of the Gandersheim nuns. When Willigis was privately and cautiously rebuked for this, he responded, “stirred up with warning look,” that Gandersheim belonged to his diocese. The Hildesheim bishop was not intimidated by this reprimand. He instead continued the argument on the very day set aside for the consecration of the nuns. The royal child, Otto III, and his mother, Theophanu, as well as several bishops and princes were present for the argument. The disagreement came to no resolution; instead, the bishop of Hildesheim had his episcopal throne set up by the altar, in order to defend his rights as diocesan bishop. And he succeeded. The people of Hildesheim agreed with his position: “almost all favored him, because the archbishop's animosity displeased them, even though through fear of him they did not show it openly.”

The tale permits insight into the dynamics of power at Theophanu's court. At least according to the Hildesheim viewpoint, the empress was in no position to hinder the arrogant and uncanonical behavior of the Mainz archbishop. His power within the regency in this way is clearly revealed. The bishop of Hildesheim was not intimidated. He defended his rights through the physical act of placing the episcopal throne beside the altar, through which he forcefully demonstrated his claim to carry out the liturgical ceremony. Such an alarming escalation of the dispute, which in other circumstances would have resulted in armed conflict, fortunately was avoided at Gandersheim. From the Hildesheim perspective, the behavior of the Mainz archbishop was responsible for this: “He who previously had promised all scarcely obtained the right to celebrate mass at the high altar that day and then only with Theophanu and the bishops pressuring and he himself requesting it in a nearly unbelievable fashion. The two bishops agreed to veil the lady Sophia together, while Lord Osdag alone invested the other nuns.”

In a subordinate clause, the Hildesheim account mentions a detail of the event significant for evaluating influences at court: the archbishop's request, made “in nearly unbelievable fashion,” gained him the support of Theophanu and the other bishops. Just as a king could not refuse the petition of a prostrate suppliant, so too did magnates have the option of making a request that put the whole of their influence in the balance but that the ruler must weigh in their favor. What appears a passing reference in the source in this way offers a realistic impression of power relations and interactions within the court. Other cases of royal minorities, in regencies such as this one, offer other examples of how high–handedly and arrogantly bishops behaved. Hatto of Mainz, Anno of Cologne, or Adalbert of Hamburg–Bremen are famous examples of this behavior.

Frequently such conduct gave rise to serious conflicts. Certainly it attests to Theophanu's aptitude, that she could avoid an escalation of the conflict—and not only in this case. Her regency is best imagined as an effort to navigate between the claims and presumptions of different interests and interest groups, charting a course that left only narrow parameters within which she could assert her own creative will. Scholars' positive judgment of Theophanu's political actions are based on a number of areas, of which her so–called western policy is best examined first.

As already mentioned, Otto II had already been engaged in armed disputes over Lotharingia. A surprise attack against Aachen prompted Otto's campaign through northern France and his subsequent siege of Paris.

In addition, Henry the Quarrelsome, as part of his scheming after Otto II's death, had established contact with the West Frankish king Lothar. Scholars have pinpointed the principles Theophanu followed in her western policy: a constant watchfulness accompanied by constant readiness to attack. By these means she is supposed to have prevented the threatened loss of Lotharingia. Older research here postulated an early form of “watch on the Rhine,” although in this period the Rhine certainly did not mark the border. Evidence for this assessment in the sources is sparse. First it is significant that important East Frankish sources such as Thietmar of Merseburg or the Quedlinburg Annals did not mention the threat to Lotharingia at all. Nor did Richer of Rheims, the contemporary West Frankish historian, so much as speak about Theophanu and her policies. Our knowledge of certain incidents rests entirely on Gerbert's letters, written on behalf of various people intensively involved in the inner conflicts of the west.

In part, these letters only hint in passing at the disputes. And yet, it is clear that again and again Theophanu's demands led to, or influenced, the need for peacemaking through mediation. This was not at all surprising, since Theophanu, because of her kinship to the disputing parties as well as her position, was the most suitable mediator. Techniques for peaceful resolution of conflicts through mediators, as attested on all sides for conflicts in the upper class at this time, until now have prompted little scholarly interest. As a result, they have never been analyzed as background for Theophanu's participation in West Frankish–Lotharingian conflicts. Nevertheless, they form the core of the empress's engagement in a “western policy.” Political activity by the women of the West and East Frankish ruling houses is attested as early as the year 985. Two of Gerbert's letters, to Duchess Beat–Figure 2. Otto III with his mother, Empress Theophanu. From the Codex Aureus of Echternach. (photo: AKG Berlin) rice of Upper Lotharingia and to Bishop Notger of Liège, refer twice to a colloquium dominarum, a “meeting of the ladies” in Metz. This gathering apparently had a peacemaking function.

Gerbert wrote both of these letters on behalf of Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims. The meeting may have actually taken place, because Gerbert congratulates Beatrice in a later letter on a success: “peace established among the princes, the state well ordered, and through you turned to better things.”

Still, the congratulations are not necessarily connected to a meeting of the ladies. Unfortunately, little is known of the agenda of the colloquium or its participants. Peace with Henry the Quarrelsome might have been its central purpose, but perhaps also stabilization of Lotharingian relations. Besides Duchess Beatrice of Lotharingia (Hugh Capet's sister), the participants may have included the following ladies: Empress Theophanu, Abbess Mathilda of Quedlinburg, Queen Emma (wife of King Lothar and daughter of Empress Adelheid), Queen Mathilda of Burgundy, Adelheid (Hugh Capet's wife), Gisela (wife of Henry the Quarrelsome and daughter of King Conrad of Burgundy), and also Gerberga (sister of Henry the Quarrelsome and abbess of Gandersheim).

Thus a great majority of ladies of royal blood were possibly in attendance. However, there is no concrete information that they were actually there. It is more significant, however, that ladies of the royal houses played a special role in mediation and peacemaking. On this point Gerbert's letters leave no doubt. This observation also is reinforced by further evidence. A letter from Queen Emma, written in 986 to her mother, Empress Adelheid, asks for her mediation with Empress Theophanu. After the death of her husband, Lothar, Emma was banished and also accused of improper relations with Bishop Adalbero of Laon. In this thoroughly unpleasant situation, during which Emma was expelled from her son's court and apparently took refuge in Rheims, she hoped to improve her situation through the intervention of Adelheid and Theophanu.

The epistolary distress call was apparently heeded. Adelheid set out for Theophanu's court after receiving the letter—although it is only a surmise that the letter prompted the journey. In 987 the princesses again attempted to bring peace among enemy factions. Again Duchess Beatrice took the leading role. At her initiative Empress Adelheid, Duke Conrad of Swabia, King Louis, Queen Emma, and Duke Hugh Capet supposedly met to discuss peace.

At first, Empress Theophanu was not asked to this meeting, which gives pause for thought, although Archbishop Everger of Cologne might have represented her.

The mediation of royal and imperial women is detected a fourth time in July 988, when the newly elected king Hugh Capet wrote to Empress Theophanu that his rival Carl of Lower Lotharingia had failed to accept the mediation proposals that the empress had made in their dispute, while Hugh himself had been ready to fulfill all her conditions.

To establish friendship with Theophanu in perpetuity, Hugh continued, he wanted to send his “companion and sharer in the kingship” Adelheid, that is, his wife, to a meeting with Theophanu at Stenay on 22 August. He promised that everything the two ladies agreed upon there would be permanently binding both for him and for Theophanu's son Otto III, “without deceit or fraud.” Apparently the meeting did not take place. Still, Hugh's plan shows yet again the apparently key role of female rulers and female relatives in bringing about peace through negotiation. The activities discussed here are by no means isolated. Instead, the role of intermediary in conflicts for the women of royal and princely houses seems customary. They were prominent intermediaries between the parties in a conflict, and their recommendations for conflict resolution rested on their authority as mediators.

Theophanu and her court, according to all appearances, engaged forcefully in the process of peacefully ending the conflicts in the west and in Lotharingia, using all means available at the time. However, many of the initiatives for mediation on both sides appear unsuccessful, although we cannot say why. On the whole, it would be wise to tone down high praise for the significance of Theophanu's western policy. Not every visit of the court to the western part of the empire was necessarily a reaction against West Frankish desire for conquest.

During the regency, the situation in the east was even more complicated than in the west. In the east, the Liutizi rebellion of 983 had been a massive setback for Ottonian missionary policy, and the penetration of German rule to the territory east of the Elbe had also come to nothing.

It is true that Saxon military musters led by bishops and margraves had been able to prevent a still worse state of affairs. Still, the unstable situation on the border demanded the full attention of the regency—not least for conducting retaliatory attacks.

In addition to the non–Christian Slavic tribes, however, the Christian dukes of Poland and Bohemia, Mieszko and Boleslav, also played a considerable role in the concatenation of forces on the eastern border. In 984 they had unmistakably supported Henry the Quarrelsome.

Mieszko and Boleslav were also locked in rivalry with each other, so that friendship with one would likely precipitate enmity with the other. The Saxons and Otto III made a coalition with Mieszko of Poland first, who gave them military support for campaigns against the Elbe Slavs in 985 and 986. Otto III, then six years old, personally took part in the campaign of 986. Mieszko of Poland supported him with a strong force and interestingly paid him homage on this campaign. The sources also expressly state that Mieszko used this as an occasion to give Otto III a camel.

Several campaigns, both with and without the king's participation, took place during Otto III's minority. They appear generally successful. For example, in September 991 a Saxon army accompanied by the king besieged and took Brandenburg.

The goal of these immense military campaigns is not clearly apparent. Perhaps it was revenge for the defeat of 983. A strategy of reconquest or indeed improvement of the former defensive positions is not in evidence. Perhaps it is completely anachronistic to regard the battles on the eastern border as part of a concerted policy for conquest and subjugation of territory. That these battles took place in accordance with different rules and conditions than modern observers expect is much clearer in two events from this period that the sources fully report. The story of the Saxon Kizo, which Thietmar of Merseburg considered worthy of detailed narration, is particularly illuminating.

Kizo, a “famous knight” [miles], perhaps a kinsman of the famous Margrave Gero, felt that Margrave Dietrich had treated him unjustly. Because Kizo saw no other possibility of gaining his rights, he defected to the Elbe Slavs. His behavior was similar to that of another famous rebel of the tenth century, the Billung Wichmann the Younger.

The Liutizi tested Kizo's dependability and then put him in charge of the fortress of Brandenburg so that he would have enough opportunities to do harm to the Saxons. Some time later Kizo reconciled with the Germans, at which time he surrendered himself and the fortress to Otto III. This in turn incited the Liutizi to a violent attack. By now Kizo, with the help of the Saxons, could successfully defend the fortress. However, he later lost it again because of the disloyalty of one of his own milites, a man with the Slavic name Boliliut. Kizo was killed in the attempt to regain Brandenburg. Thietmar of Merseburg does not represent Kizo's conduct as traitorous. On the contrary, he expressly praises this Saxon's courage and warlike feats—as, by the way, Widukind of Corvey had already done in the case of Wichmann Billung.

To change sides when one has been treated unfairly or offended by his own side is not usually considered honorable. In this case, though, the non–Christian Elbe Slavs did not seem surprised by Kizo's behavior either. They apparently gave troops to such “turncoats” gladly because they were impressed by their warlike abilities. The lesson of this tale is that relations on the eastern border were not at all like those between warring states that are concerned with the reconquest of land and that have a central command to coordinate all activities. Saxon margraves and bishops active even without the king and without his mandate were apparently motivated by a longing for revenge and a greed for booty or tribute. We are also indebted to Thietmar for two stories that reveal the complexity of relations and the complications of alliances.

Conflict broke out between Mieszko of Poland and Boleslav of Bohemia in 990. Both sought allies. Mieszko found help from Empress Theophanu; Boleslav made an alliance with the Liutizi. The empress sent Archbishop Giselher and several Saxon margraves from Magdeburg with “four weak troops” against Boleslav. When they met Boleslav, one of the duke's advisors counseled against battle because the Saxons were well armed. This allowed the duke of Bohemia to immediately make peace with the Saxon contingent. But this was not all. The Saxon leaders sent their troops home while they themselves went on with Boleslav to intercede for him with Mieszko, in other words, to negotiate a peace. Having reached the Oder, Boleslav sent an intermediary to Mieszko with the news that the Saxons (Mieszko's allies) were now in Boleslav's power. If they surrendered the conquered land, Boleslav would let them go free; otherwise he would kill them. Mieszko refused the demand; under no circumstances was he willing to suffer harm on their account. Still, Boleslav did not carry out his threat. Quite the contrary. He released the Saxon magnates at dawn, ordering them to hurry, because his allies the Liutizi would certainly use the opportunity to capture them. With the argument that “it would be neither honorable nor smart for us to make good friends into open enemies,” he succeeded in keeping the Liutizi from immediately pursuing the Saxons, so they were able to reach Magdeburg unmolested. This detailed account, too, teaches that we should not imagine the fronts too inflexibly. Besides this, it betrays a notable independence of action by the Saxon leaders, who could on their own authority make peace and dismiss their troops.

Thietmar ends the tale with the statement: “the empress rejoiced at the report of their luck.” Quite clearly, the regency took no offense at the behavior of the Saxon magnates either. In this period of battles and coalitions, though, there is one event that the available sources make particularly difficult to interpret and place in context: Duke Mieszko of Poland's gift of the civitas of Schinesghe (Gniezno) to the papacy.

Analysis of this act has sparked much controversy. Various scholars have made widely bifurcated arguments about this gift: that it worked against imperial interests, or that it was negotiated by one of the regents.

The sources, however, give no evidence that any power within the empire took part in this donation. This issue will arise again in the context of Otto III's policies in favor of eastern independence, plans that reached a high point in the foundation of the archbishopric of Gniezno. Otto's new eastern policy could be connected with Mieszko's donation, but the state of the sources renders this unclear.

Despite this lack of evidence, recent scholarship has credited Theophanu with an eastern policy that consciously promoted this ecclesiastical independence of Poland, supposedly on the basis of her advocacy for the monastery of Memleben, characterized specifically as a “sally–port” to the east.

According to this interpretation, which again applies analogies from Byzantine missionary policy, Theophanu by favoring a missionary monastery presumably consciously countered the claims of the archdiocese of Magdeburg to supremacy over the missionized regions. First of all, such theories are mostly without basis in the sources. There is no concrete evidence that Memleben served a missionary purpose, not to mention any evidence that it was designed to take over a missionary function usually carried out by the bishoprics and the archbishopric. There is also no evidence that Theophanu initiated any changes in mission policy. The only hint in the sources that Memleben played any missionary role comes from the nomination of Bishop Unger of Poznán as abbot of this monastery.

This, by the way, was after Theophanu's death, when Unger made an exchange with Empress Adelheid. However significant Unger of Poznán's appointment as abbot of Memleben may be, it simply does not suffice for reconstructing an eastern policy supposedly planned by Theophanu. What scholars have understood as Theophanu's Italian policy, on closer examination, comes down simply to one journey she made to Italy. Without doubt, this had a straightforward purpose: to visit her husband's grave on the anniversary of his death, 7 December, and to pray there for his soul. Theophanu met in Rome with Bishop Adalbert of Prague, who was making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. She convinced him with generous gifts to contribute his prayers for Otto II's soul.

That Otto III did not accompany his mother on this trip to Rome probably explains why Theophanu issued several legal documents in her own name during her journey. This was completely unprecedented. North of the Alps the legal fiction was always preserved that the underage king issued legal transactions himself—the regent's hand in affairs was attested in the charters solely in the form of requests for a particular action. It is logical in this regard to assume that Theophanu's conduct was based on Byzantine precedents.

What makes this especially evident is that the three surviving documents issued in Italy give Theophanu's name and title in a masculine form: Theophanius gratia divina imperator augustus—if this is indeed something more than a copyist's error.

Theophanu's governmental activities in Italy are known to us from yet another source. In Pavia she attempted a reform of the royal central administration, the camera regis. She did so by subordinating the ministeria there to her special confidant Johannes Philagathos, whom she also made archbishop of Piacenza.

Johannes Philagathos, according to the anonymous author of the Honorantie civitatis Papie, was the source of all evils and decline to his city: ”When that devil came . . .”

Whether or not we should take this accusation at face value, we can still see in it traces of the regent's efforts to transfer leadership of the treasury to a royal confidant. It is impossible to say precisely how effective the archbishop of Piacenza and two helpers were in assuming office and what motivated Theophanu to appoint them. Even a short time later a letter from Bishop Liudolf of Augsburg to Empress Adelheid makes evident that the innovations had had little success: the loyal officers appointed by Theophanu were forced to flee.

Johannes Philagathos, who had been promoted by Theophanu, showed striking self–assurance. When he signed a royal charter as chancellor on 18 April 991, he gave himself the following titulature: “Johannes by the grace of God archbishop and protonotary of the holy Roman Church, first of the counselors and chancellor of King Otto.”

His control of the royal treasury apparently did not demand daily management, since his duties seemed not to interfere with his accompanying the empress on her return journey to Saxony and turning over the office to two helpers, whom the author of the Honorantie describes as “servants.”

Notable with regard to Theophanu's interference in Pavia is the fact that Empress Adelheid resided there while Theophanu was regent. There is further evidence that Adelheid had been performing administrative functions in Pavia and had presided over the law court. Theophanu's intervention in Pavia, therefore, might also be related to the known rivalry between the two imperial ladies.

In any case, when Theophanu came to Italy, Adelheid had already left for a visit to Burgundy. Theophanu died on 15 June 991 in Nijmegen, before her son Otto came of age. She was buried in the Cologne monastery of Saint Pantaleon, that is, in the church of the saint whose relics she had personally brought with her from Constantinople to the west, and who was quite likely her personal patron.

Otto's grandmother Adelheid took Theophanu's place as regent, apparently without difficulty and with the support of the other domina imperialis, Abbess Mathilda of Quedlinburg. The “most august of all augustuses,” as Odilo of Cluny called Adelheid in his epitaph, continued the regency without discernible problems, but also without visible changes in policy. The new regency assumed a new shape in but one respect. Archbishop Giselher of Magdeburg seemed to move into a close relationship to the court in the years 991 to 994, as is clear from gifts and the appearance of his name as intercessor on documents.

A new policy is equally evident in 992 when Otto III, the imperial ladies, Archbishop Giselher, and many other bishops festively consecrated the cathedral of Halberstadt.97 In the course of the festivity, the underage Otto laid a golden staff upon the altar of Saint Stephen, symbolically expressing his guarantee of Halberstadt's stability and possessions. Implicit in this was a promise not to try to reestablish the bishopric of Merseburg, which would have been detrimental to Halberstadt. When Otto came of age, he did not honor this promise—perhaps following the wishes of his mother, Theophanu.

That Adelheid and Theophanu differed in policy on the vexed question of the dissolution or refoundation of Merseburg is apparent here. It speaks well for the circumspection and skill of both regents that this difference did not generate more serious conflicts—at least none revealed by the surviving sources. The interpretation of the regency of Empresses Theophanu and Adelheid presented here assumes something of a reductionist character. The accepted scholarly judgment was tested against the sources. The conclusion is that the sources do not support many of the far–ranging plans and conscious policies attributed to Theophanu. To assume them is therefore highly problematic. The methodological principles discussed in the introduction are worth recalling. They are especially justified in analyzing eras with few surviving sources. The fewer the accounts that form a basis for reconstruction, the more arbitrary are inferences of plans and ideas that cause events. Despite this, the positive judgment scholars have made of the regency still stands.

Much was probably not as carefully planned as once supposed. The regents did not initiate other events at all. Still, the fact that they succeeded in ruling throughout the long period of the regency without great crises and conflicts is uncontested and uncontestable. And that is surely accomplishment enough, when one considers how rarely such a statement can be made of rulers in this era.

© 2003 Penn State University

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